By Howard Fischer
Capitol Media Services
PHOENIX -- Acknowledging a disparity, the state's top health official said efforts are underway to get more vaccines into the arms of more members of minority and underserved communities.
Dr. Cara Christ said Friday there are targeted outreach efforts to get the message out to these groups about the availability of inoculations.
At the same time, the state is working with members of various groups to build confidence in the vaccine.
The numbers show some notable differences.
According to the most recent Census data, 4.5% of Arizona's population is Black. But just 1.4% of the nearly 1.1 million doses have gone to that group.
And Hispanics have gotten 8.2% of vaccines administered compared to more than 31% of the population.
Christ said it's no surprise that race and ethnicity data does not mirror the general population. She said much of this is the result of the fact that the first people to get inoculated were people with specific occupations, including health care workers.
That, Christ said, should resolve itself.
"As we get further into our essential workers and the general population and adults with medical conditions, what we're hoping to see is the groups that have high risks or more vulnerability, you will see those numbers come up,'' she said.
Still, she conceded, that's only part of the issue.
Christ said for some people it's a matter of transportation. So she said efforts are being made to connect individuals with a way of getting to sites.
For example, she said, the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, the state's Medicaid program, provides non-emergency transportation. And Christ said community groups are working with rideshare companies, with the idea of arranging rides at the time an appointment is booked.
The state also is on the cusp of having the vaccine available at more sites, including pharmacies at several grocery chains. That minimizes the need to go to one of those drive-thru locations.
And her agency also finally plans to put its online appointment website into Spanish this coming week.
But some of this may remain an unknown, as more than 36% of those who have been vaccinated have not identified themselves by race and ethnicity. And Christ said while those signing people up encourage them to provide that information, there is no requirement.
In a wide-ranging briefing Friday, Christ also said:
- Nearly 1.1 million doses already have been administered, including more than 883,000 individuals who have received the first of the two-dose regimen;
- While the state has asked for more, she anticipates Arizona will be getting only about 170,000 new doses a week through the end of March;
- She remains confident the current vaccines are effective against new strains but said the fact they spread more easily underlines the need for people to get inoculated.
And she said that having the state take over the site at the University of Arizona will result in an initial drop in the number of doses available to other providers in the county. But Christ said she anticipates that will be only a temporary situation.
"What we're going to be doing is working to expand some hours,'' she said, by an hour through the "soft launch'' this weekend and by four to five hours on Monday.
"We don't have enough vaccine for them to go 24/7,'' Christ continued. "But eventually what we are hoping will happen is we will start getting enough vaccine where we can give them and Pima County more vaccine.''
Now the question in Pima and elsewhere becomes convincing people to get inoculated.
Medical experts are unsure what percentage it will take to achieve "herd immunity,'' the point at which the risk of rapid spread of COVID-19 is significantly reduced because people either have been vaccinated or who have had the disease and built up antibodies. It seems to vary by disease, with polio in the 80% range and measles at 95%.
Arizona is far from that point. Right now, only about 10% of Arizonans have gotten at least one dose.
That provides some level of protection. But with the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines -- the only ones now available -- it takes two doses, separated by several weeks, to provide a high level of immunity.
Christ figures the state is averaging about 215,000 doses a week.
At that rate, she said, the state could get to 20% in four weeks and 30% in eight weeks.
And a vaccine for everyone who wants one?
"We're hoping by the summer we should be in Phase 3, which is where there's enough supply to meet the demand,'' Christ said.
The health director said the most recent polling shows about 63% of those questioned say the intend to get the vaccine when it becomes available. She called that "promising,'' saying that is likely to increase as more people get inoculated and they share their experiences with others.
Still, Christ said, there will be people that don't want it, even as the federal government continues to allocate based on population.
"So we'll have excess excess supply,'' she said.
Christ also said there are "promising things on the horizon.''
One is that Johnson & Johnson will get a hearing toward the end of the month on that company's bid to have its own vaccine certified for emergency use.
"That should hopefully make that vaccine, which is a one-dose vaccine, available by the beginning of March,'' Christ said. "And it will be a wonderful resource for us to get into those hard-to-reach and vulnerable communities if we only need to vaccinate them one time.''
That plan, she said, includes targeting high-risk zip codes to get the word out.
"We will continue to expand that and work with our local public health departments to make sure that we are messaging messages that are culturally competent, that resonate with those communities, and working through those communities to build trust,'' Christ said.
That will be combined with community-based inoculation centers "so that they don't need to travel.''